The Sweet Bay tree is perfectly suited for growing in containers and is a wonderful addition to your container kitchen garden. The trees grow slowly and can be kept small through regular pruning, which is something you'll want to do anyway in order to use the wonderfully aromatic leaves in your cooking.
The Bay Laurel (Laurus nobilis) is native to the Southern Mediterranean. Also known as Sweet Bay, Grecian Laurel or True Laurel, it has shiny dark green leathery leaves and shiny gray bark. In the Spring it will reward you with clusters of small yellow flowers. It is a slow-growing evergreen, growing 10 to 12 inches per year. The tree can reach as high as 60 feet in its native climate, though 10 to 15 feet is much more common and a container tree can be easily kept to the size of a small or medium bush. It is hardy to zone 8 (25 degrees F in the winter), but does very well if moved indoors during the winter in colder climates.
STARTING YOUR TREE
Bay Laurel trees can be started from seeds or cuttings of young branches, but it is not easy and requires much patience. I would strongly recommend purchasing a young tree from a local nursery or mail order. There are several cultivars of Laurel and several types of trees called a Bay tree, so be sure to purchase a Laurus nobilis.
PLANTING YOUR TREE
Choose a container large enough for the size you would like your tree to grow. An 18 inch wide and high pot or larger should be adequate. Also choose a container which is durable and will last many years as your Bay Tree can live 10 years or more if properly cared for. You can also start out with a smaller pot, 12 inch in diameter or so, and transplant in a few years when your tree grows. Bay Laurel tolerates being slightly root-bound and transplants easily, so this can be a good choice.
If the container does not have sufficient drainage, drill some drain holes using a 5/8 or larger drill bit. Cover the drain holes with fiberglass or wire mesh window screen, and partially fill with a good quality well-draining potting soil or one amended for trees (see article on potting soil recipes for more information). Remove your Bay Laurel from its pot and loosen the roots if they are pot-bound. Place the plant on top of the soil in your container and fill in around it level with the soil around the plant, tamping down occasionally to remove air pockets. Water thoroughly and place in a sunny to partially sunny location, away from harsh wind. If the weather is still cold, keep your plant indoors in a sunny window.
CARING FOR YOUR BAY LAUREL
Bay Laurel are very easy to care for. Water when the soil becomes dry to 1 inch or so and be sure the container drains well. Every few months during the growing season give the tree a feeding of a well-balanced fertilizer or manure tea. The essential oils in the leaves naturally repel insects, and Bay are susceptible to few diseases.
Prune your Bay Laurel as needed to maintain size and shape. Bays make an excellent topiary, standard, or even espalier, so prune and shape as you desire. Removing the branch tips will cause the Bay to branch further, so you can easily make your plant into a beautiful full shrub.
In the fall as the weather turns cold move your Bay indoors in a sunny location away from heat. If needed, supplement the light with a grow light or daylight florescent light fixture. Reduce to amount of water during the winter and stop fertilizing. In the Spring as the weather turns warm again and threat of frost has past, gradually acclimate your Bay to the outdoors again, placing it outside for an hour or so longer each day.
HARVESTING AND DRYING LEAVES
The essential oils in the leaves will be strongest in the height of summer, but the leaves can be harvested year round. Choose the oldest leaves for the most oils and flavor. Remove the leaves at the stem using floral scissors or a sharp knife, or gently twist the leaf to separate it from the stem. The leaves can be used fresh or dried for later.
To dry the leaves, place them between two layers of paper towel or microfiber cloth. Place a weight on top to keep the leaves from curling and set aside in a dry area of your home. Check periodically, and when completely dry store in an airtight jar.
BAY HERB USES
Bay leaves add a wonderful flavor to soups, stews, sauces, seafood boils, meat stocks, pickling brines, marinades, and poultry and fish dishes. Fresh bay leaves have the strongest flavor as the dried leaves lose their flavor over time, but both work well. Be sure to remove the leaf or leaves before serving your food, as the leaves are tough and have sharp edges that can cut.